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Publication numberUS20070125620 A1
Publication typeApplication
Application numberUS 10/558,907
PCT numberPCT/US2004/017473
Publication date7 Jun 2007
Filing date3 Jun 2004
Priority date3 Jun 2003
Also published asEP1629356A2, EP1629356A4, EP2267651A1, US20150170124, WO2004109464A2, WO2004109464A3
Publication number10558907, 558907, PCT/2004/17473, PCT/US/2004/017473, PCT/US/2004/17473, PCT/US/4/017473, PCT/US/4/17473, PCT/US2004/017473, PCT/US2004/17473, PCT/US2004017473, PCT/US200417473, PCT/US4/017473, PCT/US4/17473, PCT/US4017473, PCT/US417473, US 2007/0125620 A1, US 2007/125620 A1, US 20070125620 A1, US 20070125620A1, US 2007125620 A1, US 2007125620A1, US-A1-20070125620, US-A1-2007125620, US2007/0125620A1, US2007/125620A1, US20070125620 A1, US20070125620A1, US2007125620 A1, US2007125620A1
InventorsTimothy Sorenson, Mark Evans
Original AssigneeSorenson Timothy N, Evans Mark L
Export CitationBiBTeX, EndNote, RefMan
External Links: USPTO, USPTO Assignment, Espacenet
Methods and systems for providing products, such as digital content including games, ring tones, and/or graphics; and services, such as computer network service including internet service
US 20070125620 A1
Abstract
Methods and systems for exchanging various forms of value, including coins, paper currency, credit, and/or debit, for Internet service and digital content. Such digital content can include, for example, online games and content for mobile phones. In one embodiment, a value exchange machine includes a coin input region, a coin sorting/counting apparatus, a card reader, and a communications facility configured to communicate with a remote computer network. A user wishing to purchase Internet service, for example, can visit the value exchange machine, select the desired transaction, and pay for the Internet service with coins, paper currency, a credit card, a debit card, and/or bank account funds. After confirming payment, the value exchange machine can issue a code to the user, for example, on a card enabling the user to obtain the Internet service.
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Claims(43)
1. A method for providing Internet service, the method comprising:
providing a kiosk having:
a user interface; and
a funds input portion;
receiving a selection from a user via the user interface, the selection being related to the purchase of Internet service;
receiving funds from the user via the funds input portion; and
at least partially in response to receiving the funds from the user, providing the user with means to obtain the Internet service with a computer separate from the kiosk.
2. The method of claim 1 wherein providing the user with means to obtain the Internet service includes providing the user with means to obtain Internet access for a preset period of time.
3. The method of claim 1 wherein providing the user with means to obtain the Internet service includes providing the user with a code that enables the user to obtain Internet access.
4. The method of claim 1 wherein providing the user with means to obtain the Internet service includes providing the user with a wallet-sized card that includes information enabling the user to obtain Internet access for a preset period of time.
5. The method of claim 1 wherein providing the user with means to obtain the Internet service includes providing the user with a code, and wherein the method further comprises providing the user with a telephone number that provides access to a service that activates the Internet service in response to receiving the code.
6. The method of claim 1 wherein receiving funds from the user includes receiving a plurality of randomly oriented coins of arbitrary denomination from the user.
7. The method of claim 1 wherein receiving funds from the user includes receiving a plurality of randomly oriented coins of arbitrary denomination from the user, and wherein the method further comprises:
counting at least a portion of the received coins to arrive at a total; and
displaying the total to the user at the kiosk.
8. The method of claim 1, further comprising displaying first and second product options to the user at the kiosk, wherein the first product option corresponds to receiving Internet service and the second product option corresponds to a product different than Internet service, and wherein receiving a selection from the user includes receiving a selection of the first option.
9. The method of claim 1, further comprising displaying first and second options to the user at the kiosk, wherein the first option corresponds to receiving Internet service and the second option corresponds to receiving a voucher redeemable for at least one of cash and merchandise, and wherein receiving a selection from the user includes receiving a selection of the first option.
10. The method of claim 1, further comprising displaying first and second options to the user at the kiosk, wherein the first option corresponds to receiving Internet service and the second option corresponds to receiving digital content, and wherein receiving a selection from the user includes receiving a selection of the first option.
11. The method of claim 1, further comprising displaying first and second options to the user at the kiosk, wherein the first option corresponds to receiving Internet service and the second option corresponds to receiving telephone service, and wherein receiving a selection from the user includes receiving a selection of the first option.
12. The method of claim 1 wherein providing a kiosk having a funds input portion includes providing a kiosk having a coin-receiving region, and wherein receiving funds from the user via the funds input portion includes receiving a plurality of randomly oriented coins of arbitrary denomination in the coin-receiving region of the kiosk.
13. The method of claim 1 wherein providing a kiosk having a funds input portion includes providing a kiosk having a card reader, and wherein receiving funds from the user via the funds input portion includes reading information off of a magnetic strip on a card swiped through the card reader by the user.
14. The method of claim 1 wherein providing a kiosk having a funds input portion includes providing a kiosk having a bill acceptor, and wherein receiving funds from the user via the funds input portion includes receiving at least one bill from the user via the bill acceptor.
15. The method of claim 1, further comprising receiving account information from the user, wherein the account information identifies an Internet service account of the user related to the purchase of the Internet service.
16. A method for providing Internet service, the method comprising:
providing a machine having:
a user interface; and
a funds input portion;
receiving account information from a user via the user interface, wherein the account information is associated with an Internet service account of the user;
receiving funds from the user via the funds input portion; and
applying at least a portion of the funds to the Internet service account of the user.
17. The method of claim 16 wherein applying at least a portion of the funds to the Internet service account of the user includes increasing Internet access time in the Internet service account.
18. The method of claim 16 wherein applying at least a portion of the funds to the Internet service account of the user includes paying for used Internet access time.
19. The method of claim 16 wherein applying a portion of the funds to the Internet service account includes adding an amount of time to the Internet service account, and wherein the method further comprises providing the user with a code for activating the amount of time added to the Internet service account.
20. The method of claim 16 wherein receiving funds from the user includes receiving a plurality of randomly oriented coins of arbitrary denomination from the user.
21. The method of claim 16, further comprising displaying first and second product options to the user at the machine, wherein the first product option corresponds to receiving Internet service and the second product option corresponds to a product different than Internet service, and wherein receiving a selection from the user includes receiving a selection of the first option.
22. The method of claim 16 wherein providing a machine with a funds input portion includes providing a kiosk having a coin-receiving region, and wherein receiving funds from the user via the funds input portion includes receiving a plurality of randomly oriented coins or arbitrary denomination in the coin-receiving region of the kiosk.
23. The method of claim 16 wherein providing a machine with a funds input portion includes providing a kiosk having a card reader, and wherein receiving funds from the user via the funds input portion includes reading information off of a magnetic strip on a card swiped through the card reader by the user.
24. The method of claim 16 wherein receiving account information from a user via the user interface includes receiving an account number from the user via a keypad.
25. The method of claim 16 wherein receiving account information from a user via the user interface includes reading information off of a magnetic strip on a card swiped through the card reader by the user.
26. A consumer-operated apparatus configured to provide means for obtaining computer network service, the apparatus comprising:
a coin-receiving region configured to receive a plurality of randomly oriented coins of arbitrary denomination from a user;
a coin discriminator configured to count the coins received by the coin-receiving region; and
a dispenser configured to output means for obtaining computer network service in exchange for at least a portion of the coins counted by the coin discriminator.
27. The apparatus of claim 26 wherein the coin-receiving region is configured to at least approximately simultaneously receive the plurality of randomly oriented coins.
28. The apparatus of claim 26 wherein the dispenser is configured to provide the user with a card containing a code for obtaining computer network service.
29. The apparatus of claim 26 wherein the dispenser is configured to provide the user with a receipt containing a code for obtaining computer network service.
30. The apparatus of claim 26 wherein the dispenser is configured to output means for obtaining Internet service.
31. The apparatus of claim 26, further comprising:
a display for presenting first and second product options to the user at the kiosk, wherein the first product option corresponds to receiving computer network service and the second product option corresponds to a product different than computer network service; and
a user interface for receiving a selection from the user corresponding to at least one of the first and second product options.
32. A method for providing digital content, the method comprising:
providing a kiosk having:
a user interface; and
a funds input portion;
receiving a selection from a user via the user interface, the selection being related to the purchase of digital content;
receiving funds from the user via the funds input portion; and
at least partially in response to receiving the funds from the user, providing the user with means to obtain digital content with a computer separate from the kiosk.
33. The method of claim 32 wherein providing a kiosk having a funds input portion includes providing a kiosk having a coin-receiving region, and wherein receiving funds from the user via the funds input portion includes receiving a plurality of randomly oriented coins of arbitrary denomination in the coin-receiving region of the kiosk.
34. The method of claim 32 wherein providing a kiosk having a funds input portion includes providing a kiosk having a card reader, and wherein receiving funds from the user via the funds input portion includes reading information off of a magnetic strip on a card swiped through the card reader by the user.
35. The method of claim 32 wherein providing a kiosk having a funds input portion includes providing a kiosk having a bill acceptor, and wherein receiving funds from the user via the funds input portion includes receiving at least one bill from the user via the bill acceptor.
36. The method of claim 32, further comprising receiving account information from the user, wherein the account information identifies an account of the user related to the purchase of the digital content.
37. The method of claim 32 wherein providing the user with means to obtain digital content includes providing the user with means to obtain digital content for use with a telephone.
38. The method of claim 32 wherein providing the user with means to obtain digital content includes providing the user with means to obtain at least one of ring tones and voice-mail greetings for use with a telephone.
39. The method of claim 32 wherein providing the user with means to obtain digital content includes providing the user with means to obtain picture messages for use with a telephone.
40. The method of claim 32 wherein providing the user with means to obtain digital content includes providing the user with means to obtain digital content via the Internet.
41. The method of claim 32 wherein providing the user with means to obtain digital content includes providing the user with a code for obtaining digital content via the Internet.
42. The method of claim 32 wherein providing the user with means to obtain digital content includes providing the user with a wallet-sized card including a code for obtaining digital content via the Internet.
43. The method of claim 32 wherein providing the user with means to obtain digital content includes providing the user with a code for obtaining access to games via the Internet.
Description
    CROSS-REFERENCE TO RELATED APPLICATION INCORPORATED BY REFERENCE
  • [0001]
    This application claims the benefit of co-pending U.S. Provisional Patent Application Ser. No. 60/475,804, entitled “METHODS AND SYSTEMS FOR PROVIDING COMPUTER NETWORK SERVICE—SUCH AS INTERNET SERVICE; DIGITAL CONTENT—SUCH AS GAMES, RING TONES, AND GRAPHICS; AND OTHER PRODUCTS AND SERVICES,” filed Jun. 3, 2003, and incorporated herein in its entirety by reference.
  • TECHNICAL FIELD
  • [0002]
    This application relates generally to methods and systems for exchanging coins, paper currency, credit/debit, and other forms of value for digital content (e.g., games, ring tones, etc.), computer service (e.g., Internet service), and the like.
  • BACKGROUND
  • [0003]
    Various vending machines are configured to dispense selected products to users in exchange for exact amounts of money. Such machines include, for example, food dispensing machines, stamp dispensing machines, ticket dispensing machines, and the like. Other machines are configured to count arbitrary numbers and denominations of coins received from users. One such coin-counting machine is disclosed in U.S. Pat. No. 5,620,079 to Molbak, which is incorporated herein in its entirety by reference. In one embodiment, the Molbak coin-counting machine can dispense a redeemable voucher to a user for an amount related to the value of coins received from the user. This redeemable voucher can be redeemed for cash or merchandise at, for example, a point-of-sale (POS) in the retail outlet where the machine is located.
  • [0004]
    Machines also exist for dispensing prepaid telephone cards to users. Such machines typically dispense a selected phone card to a user after the user has deposited a requisite amount of money in the machine. In addition, prepaid long-distance accounts and wireless cell phone accounts also exist whereby a service carrier maintains an account of available minutes for each individual user. Such accounts are often rechargeable and are associated with individual personal identification numbers (PINs). To start an account, a user purchases a phone card good for, for example, sixty minutes of long-distance telephone usage. The number of minutes in the account are depleted as the user makes phone calls with the card. Some accounts allow the user to add minutes by paying for additional time with, for example, a credit card. In this way, the user is able to add minutes to the account as the need arises, or to fit their particular budget.
  • [0005]
    Other methods exist by which customers can purchase prepaid credit cards. In one such method, a customer gives a cashier at a POS sufficient funds to cover the value of a prepaid credit card and any additional service fees charged by the retail outlet. In return for the funds, the cashier provides the customer with a receipt that includes a unique identification number and the telephone number of a credit card issuer. The customer calls the telephone number and provides the credit card issuer with the identification number from the receipt and certain other personal information. Such personal information can include the customer's mailing address and/or the customer's social security number. The credit card issuer then provides a credit card account number to the customer over the telephone. The customer can begin using this number for credit card purchases immediately by telephone, mail, or the Internet. The credit card issuer also mails an embossed credit card to the customer that the customer can begin using as soon as it arrives.
  • BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS
  • [0006]
    FIG. 1 is a partially schematic isometric view of a value exchange machine configured in accordance with an embodiment.
  • [0007]
    FIG. 2 is an enlarged front elevation view of a drawer assembly of the value exchange machine of FIG. 1 configured in accordance with an embodiment.
  • [0008]
    FIG. 3 is a flow diagram illustrating a routine for exchanging various forms of value using the value exchange machine of FIG. 1.
  • [0009]
    FIG. 4 is a diagram illustrating various forms of value exchangeable using the value exchange machine of FIG. 1.
  • [0010]
    FIG. 5 is a block diagram illustrating components of a value exchange system configured in accordance with an embodiment.
  • [0011]
    FIG. 6 is a flow diagram illustrating a routine implemented by the value exchange system of FIG. 5 in one embodiment.
  • [0012]
    FIG. 7 is a flow diagram illustrating a routine for receiving a transaction selection from a user in one embodiment.
  • [0013]
    FIG. 8 is a flow diagram illustrating a routine for inputting various forms of payment in one embodiment.
  • [0014]
    FIG. 9 is a flow diagram illustrating a routine for completing a selected transaction in one embodiment.
  • [0015]
    FIG. 10 is a flow diagram illustrating a routine for transferring money in accordance with an embodiment.
  • [0016]
    FIG. 11 is a diagram illustrating a display page useable for a person-to-person money transfer in accordance with an embodiment.
  • [0017]
    FIG. 12 is a flow diagram illustrating a routine for purchasing computer network service, such as Internet service, and/or digital content, in one embodiment.
  • [0018]
    FIG. 13 is a flow diagram illustrating a routine for adding value to an Internet service account, a digital content subscription, or the like, in one embodiment.
  • DETAILED DESCRIPTION
  • [0019]
    This application incorporates International Patent Application No. PCT/US03/04601, filed Feb. 14, 2003, in its entirety by reference.
  • [0020]
    This application incorporates the following U.S. patents in their entireties by reference: U.S. Pat. No. 5,746,299; U.S. Pat. No. 6,047,808; U.S. Pat. No. 5,988,348; U.S. Pat. No. 6,196,371; U.S. Pat. No. 6,116,402; U.S. Pat. No. 6,349,972; and U.S. Pat. No. 5,909,793.
  • [0021]
    This application further incorporates the following co-pending U.S. patent applications in their entireties by reference: U.S. patent application Ser. No. 09/661,956, filed Sept. 14, 2000; U.S. patent application Ser. No. 09/662,414, filed Sep. 14, 2000; U.S. patent application Ser. No. 09/661,955, filed Sep. 14, 2000; U.S. patent application Ser. No. 09/661,048, filed Sep. 14, 2000; and U.S. patent application Ser. No. 10/020,587, filed Oct. 30, 2001.
  • [0022]
    The following disclosure describes methods and systems for converting one form of value into another form of value. “Value,” as used herein, means anything of monetary worth, such as money, credit, time (e.g., long-distance or cell phone minutes), event and travel tickets, merchandise, Internet service, digital content, and the like. Further, as used throughout this disclosure, the term “card” shall be understood to include both prepaid and non-prepaid cards, unless the particular context requires otherwise. The term “prepaid card” can refer to any instrument useable in commerce in place of money, or any instrument that entitles the bearer to acquire, utilize, or exhaust any commercially available product or service. Examples of prepaid cards in this context include prepaid credit cards, prepaid cash cards, stored-value cards, in-store credit cards, gift cards, prepaid phone cards, payroll cards, and the like. Throughout this disclosure, for ease of reference the term “prepaid cash card” will be understood to include at least prepaid cash card, prepaid credit card, and stored-value card. Examples of “non-prepaid” cards can include conventional credit cards, and the like. Such prepaid and non-prepaid cards typically include at least one of a readable magnetic stripe, bar code, computer/memory chip, smart card chip, and the like.
  • [0023]
    In one embodiment, the system described herein can receive a random plurality of coins from a user, count the coins, and, if the user desires, dispense a prepaid card to the user having a value related to the total value of the coins received. This prepaid card may then be used by the user, or another person authorized by the user, to pay for goods and/or services at a variety of different retail locations. In another embodiment, the system disclosed herein can dispense a prepaid card to a user in return for loose coins, paper currency, and/or a valid credit card account number that is provided by the user. In a further embodiment, a user may apply value from an existing prepaid card to purchase another prepaid card. In yet another embodiment, the system disclosed herein can dispense a prepaid card to a user in return for funds debited from a financial institution account (e.g., a savings, checking account, or brokerage account) that is provided by the user. In yet another embodiment, a user may utilize any of the foregoing methods of payment to “top up” (i.e., to “reload,” “recharge,” or otherwise increase the value of) an existing prepaid card. Thus, in accordance with embodiments of the invention, a user can purchase or top up a prepaid card with 1) cash (e.g., loose coins and/or currency); 2) credit (e.g., credit cards, check cards, etc.); 3) debit (e.g., debit cards, ATM cards, etc.); 4) existing prepaid cards; 5) bank account funds; and/or 6) any combination of the above.
  • [0024]
    The present disclosure, however, is not limited to methods and systems for dispensing prepaid cash cards and phone cards to users. To the contrary, embodiments of the methods and systems disclosed herein can also include dispensing tickets (such as event and travel tickets), novelty items, and redeemable vouchers to users in return for the various forms of payment discussed above. In addition, further embodiments of the methods and systems disclosed can also include providing account information to users, such as balance information regarding a particular credit card account, phone card account, on-line account, and the like.
  • [0025]
    Further, the methods and systems described herein can also be used to transfer funds to an account of a user, to an account of another person, from an account of the user, and/or from an account of another person. Such transactions may include, for example, transferring value to or from a bank account, a brokerage account, a credit card account, long distance phone card account, an on-line payment account, a virtual account, and/or a virtual “e-wallet.” As used herein, the term “account” shall be taken to mean at least the foregoing types of accounts, unless the particular context contradicts such an interpretation. In such transactions, the user may receive a receipt documenting the transaction instead of a card. In one such transaction, the user can utilize any of the methods of payment described above to transfer money from one account to another account (e.g., for a person-to-person payment or for bill payment). Similarly, the user may also elect to transfer the proceeds from any such payment to a bank account for direct deposit, to a cell phone account to obtain additional minutes, or to an on-line account (e.g., an “e-wallet”) for on-line purchases.
  • [0026]
    Certain embodiments of the methods and systems described herein for exchanging one form of value for another form of value are described in the context of computer-executable instructions performed by a general-purpose computer. For example, in one embodiment these computer-executable instructions are stored on a computer-readable medium, such as a floppy disk or CD-ROM. In other embodiments, instructions are stored on a server computer system and accessed via a communications link or a computer network, such as an intranet, the Internet, or another computer network. Because the basic structures and functions related to computer-readable routines and corresponding implementations are known, they have not been shown or described in detail here in order to avoid unnecessarily obscuring the described embodiments.
  • [0027]
    Certain specific details are set forth in the following description and in FIGS. 1-13 to provide a thorough understanding of various embodiments of the invention. Those of ordinary skill in the relevant art will understand, however, that the invention may have additional embodiments which may be practiced without several of the details described below. In other instances, those of ordinary skill in the relevant art will appreciate that the methods and systems described can include additional details without departing from the spirit or scope of the disclosed embodiments. In addition, some well-known structures and systems often associated with card dispensing apparatuses and methods and associated computer networks have not been shown or described in detail below to avoid unnecessarily obscuring the description of the various embodiments of the invention.
  • [0028]
    In the Figures that follow, identical reference numbers identify identical or at least generally similar elements. To facilitate the discussion of any particular element, the most significant digit or digits in any reference number refers to the figure in which that element is first introduced. For example, element 120 is first introduced and discussed with reference to FIG. 1. In addition, any dimensions, angles and other specifications shown in the figures are merely illustrative of particular embodiments of the invention. Accordingly, other embodiments of the invention can have other dimensions, angles and specifications without departing from the spirit or scope of the present disclosure.
  • [0029]
    FIG. 1 is a partially schematic isometric view of a value exchange machine 100 configured in accordance with an embodiment. In one aspect of this embodiment, the machine 100 includes a coin input region or tray 106, a voucher outlet 108, a coin return 110, a coin sorting/counting apparatus 112 (shown schematically), and a communications facility 113 (also shown schematically). The machine 100 can further include various user-interface devices, such as a first keypad 114, user-selection buttons 115, a speaker 116, a display screen 118, and a touch screen 117. In another aspect of this embodiment, the foregoing features of the value exchange machine 100 can be at least generally similar in structure and function to one or more of their counterparts as described in the '079 patent to Molbak. Accordingly, these features can be utilized in various embodiments as described in the '079 patent to Molbak to provide a redeemable cash voucher to a user in return for coins deposited by the user in the coin tray 106. In other embodiments, the machine 100 can have other features in other arrangements without departing from the spirit or scope of the present invention. As described in greater detail below, the machine 100 can also include a drawer assembly 120 that has additional value exchange functionalities.
  • [0030]
    FIG. 2 is an enlarged front elevation view of the drawer assembly 120 of FIG. 1 configured in accordance with an embodiment. In an aspect of this embodiment, the drawer assembly 120 includes a card reader 202, a bill acceptor 204, and a second keypad 206 (which may be encrypted). The bill acceptor 204 can be configured to receive paper currency (referred to herein simply as “currency”). The card reader 202 can be configured to read all forms of data storage media typically found on wallet-sized cards, such as conventional credit cards, debit cards, smart cards, and the like. In addition, in some embodiments, the card reader 202 can also be configured to write data to suitable data storage media typically found on such cards. Such data storage media can include one or more of magnetic stripes, bar codes, smart chips, and the like. The second keypad 206 can be used to enter information often associated with such cards, including a PIN.
  • [0031]
    In addition to the foregoing user-interface devices, the drawer assembly 120 can also include a number of output devices. For example, the drawer assembly 120 can include a card outlet 208, a ticket outlet 210, and a receipt outlet 212. In the illustrated embodiment, the card outlet 208 is a horizontal slot for dispensing cards, such as prepaid cash or phone cards, and other similar items. The ticket outlet 210 of the illustrated embodiment can be a similar horizontal slot for dispensing travel or event tickets, such as airline tickets or tickets for a basketball game or a concert. As described in greater detail below, in one embodiment these tickets may have been reserved, ordered, or prepurchased on-line by a user over the Internet.
  • [0032]
    While the aspects and features of the drawer assembly 120 discussed above are representative of those that may be included as components of the value exchange machine 100 of FIG. 1, those of ordinary skill in the relevant art will understand that additional features may be included without departing from the spirit or scope of the present disclosure. For example, although the drawer assembly 120 of the illustrated embodiment is shown with only one card outlet 208 and one ticket outlet 210, in other embodiments more card and ticket outlets may be included, depending on the particular application of the machine 100. Furthermore, in yet other embodiments one or more of the foregoing features may be omitted from the value exchange machine 100 in various applications without departing from the spirit or scope of the present disclosure.
  • [0033]
    Use of the value exchange machine 100 to exchange one form of value for another form of value will now be explained in accordance with a few examples. Referring to FIG. 1, in one embodiment transaction options are displayed for a user on the display screen 118, and can include one or more of purchasing a prepaid cash card; purchasing a prepaid phone card; transferring money to an account; topping up an existing credit card account, cash card account, long distance phone card account, or wireless account; receiving a redeemable cash voucher, and/or performing other transfers or purchasing other items. The user can select the desired transaction or transactions by using the first keypad 114, the touch screen 117, and/or one or more of the selection buttons 115 in response to prompts shown on the display screen 118. If the user selects, for example, to purchase a prepaid cash card, then the machine 100 prompts the user to input his/her preferred payment option. In one embodiment, the user can elect to pay with coins and can deposit a plurality of randomly oriented coins into the tray 106 and hingeably rotate the tray 106 upwardly to deliver the coins to the coin sorting/counting apparatus 112. The coin sorting/counting apparatus 112 then counts the coins and displays the total to the user on the display screen 118. If the user accepts this total and, if applicable, any related service fees, then the machine 100 prompts the user to indicate how much of the total the user wishes to put on the prepaid cash card. Once the user has input this value, the machine 100 dispenses the prepaid cash card to the user via the card outlet 208, assuming the user deposited enough money to cover the requested value. If any funds are left over from the transaction, the machine can issue a redeemable cash voucher to the user for the difference. Alternatively, the user can apply the remaining funds toward another card or service, or transfer the remaining funds to an account, such as a checking or savings account.
  • [0034]
    In another embodiment, a user may desire to purchase a prepaid cash card with an existing credit card. In this embodiment, the user swipes the existing credit card through the card reader 202 (FIG. 2). After reading the card, the machine 100 prompts the user to input a PIN or other security code via the second keypad 206. Next, the machine 100 prompts the user to enter the desired dollar amount of the new prepaid cash card via the first keypad 114. After authorizing the transaction (by communicating, for example, with a remote bank via the communications facility 113), the machine 100 dispenses the new prepaid cash card to the user via the card outlet 208. In a further embodiment, the user can pay for a prepaid cash card at least in part by depositing a sufficient number of bills into the bill acceptor 204.
  • [0035]
    In yet another embodiment, a user can purchase a prepaid credit card with the machine 100 as follows. First, the user uses the touch screen 117, the first keypad 114, and/or the user-selection buttons 115 to select the prepaid credit card purchase option. In one aspect of this embodiment, the customer then deposits payment by inserting paper currency into the bill acceptor 204, depositing coins into the coin tray 106 and rotating the tray upwardly to deliver the coins, and/or by swiping a debit or credit card through the card reader 202. In other embodiments, the customer can deposit payment in other ways. For example, in other embodiments, the machine 100 may have a coin input feature that differs from the rotatable coin tray 106 without departing from the present disclosure. After confirming receipt of the funds, the machine 100 dispenses a receipt or other media (card facsimile, etc.) to the customer from the receipt outlet 212.
  • [0036]
    In one aspect of this embodiment, the receipt includes instructions directing the user to call a particular telephone number and activate their new prepaid credit card account. Per the instructions, the user calls the telephone number and activates his/her account by providing certain personal information, such as name and mailing address. The user then receives a unique number (such as a 16-digit number for their new prepaid credit card account) from the credit card account issuer over the telephone. The user can use this number immediately for credit-based purchases either by telephone, mail, or the Internet. Further, within a few days, the user receives a personalized, embossed prepaid credit card via the mail that can be used anywhere the particular prepaid credit card is accepted. In addition, the user can also have the option of attaching a PIN to their new prepaid credit card account that will allow them to make cash withdrawals at ATMs.
  • [0037]
    In a slightly different embodiment, a user can purchase a prepaid credit card with the machine 100 as follows. First, the user uses the touch screen 117, the keypad 114, and/or the user-selection buttons 115 to select the purchase of a prepaid credit card. The user then deposits payment by, for example, inserting paper currency into the bill acceptor 204, depositing coins into the coin tray 106, and/or by swiping a debit or credit card through the card reader 202. After confirming receipt of payment, the machine 100 dispenses the prepaid credit card to the user from the card outlet 208. In this embodiment, the card can be used immediately anywhere the particular prepaid credit card is accepted.
  • [0038]
    In a further embodiment, a user can use the machine 100 to “reload” or add funds to a card (e.g., a cash, credit, or stored-value card). In this embodiment, the user utilizes the touch screen 117, the first keypad 114, and/or the user-selection buttons 115 to select the “reload” or “recharge” transaction, then swipes the card they would like to reload through the card reader 202. The user then deposits payment for the reload amount using coin, currency, and/or credit as described above. After confirming the receipt of funds, the machine 100 dispenses a receipt to the user via the receipt outlet 212. The funds received from the user are then credited to the desired card (or associated account), and are available for use immediately or within a relatively short time. In this embodiment and the previous embodiment, the user is not required to place a telephone call to a third-party service, such as a prepaid credit card account issuer, to activate the account.
  • [0039]
    As mentioned above, a prepaid cash card is only one form of “value” that can be output by the machine 100 in return for various forms of monetary exchange provided by a user. For example, in other embodiments the machine 100 can output tickets from the ticket outlet 210 or prepaid phone cards from the card outlet 208 after receiving sufficient funds via one or more of the card reader 202, the bill acceptor 204, or the coin input tray 106.
  • [0040]
    In yet another embodiment, a user may elect to use any of the fund input methods discussed above to electronically transfer money. In such transactions, the user may not receive a card having a value. Instead, the user may receive a receipt or other record documenting the transaction. For example, in one such transaction the user can utilize any of the methods of payment described above to transfer money to his or her account (e.g., a savings, checking, or credit card account) or to an account of another person (e.g., for a person-to-person payment or for a bill payment). Similarly, the user can also elect to transfer the proceeds from any such payment to a bank account for direct deposit, to a cell phone account (e.g., for long-distance telephone minutes), or to an on-line account (e.g., an “e-wallet”) for on-line purchases.
  • [0041]
    In a further embodiment, a user can top up a phone account (e.g., a long distance calling card account or a wireless account) with the machine 100. In one aspect of this embodiment, the display screen 118 can present or display a prompt or menu to the user asking if he or she would like to top up their phone card account. If so, the user selects his or her carrier and/or enters the corresponding account number or phone number. (In another embodiment, the user can swipe his/her card through the card reader 202 to have the account number read from the card.) For a PIN-based transaction, the user selects a predefined dollar amount to add to his/her account and then deposits money or other funds into the machine 100 in one of the ways described above. For example, in one embodiment, the user can deposit currency via the bill acceptor 204. In another embodiment, the user can deposit coins via the coin tray 106. After depositing the funds, the user receives a printout or receipt with a PIN via the receipt outlet 212. The user then calls the carrier and enters the PIN to activate the additional minutes added to his/her account. In another embodiment, the user has the option of selecting either a predefined dollar amount of minutes or entering a specific dollar amount he/she wishes to add to his/her account. In this embodiment, once the user has inserted his or her payment, the user receives a receipt confirming the transaction and the funds are immediately credited to the user's phone card account. As will be appreciated by those of ordinary skill in the relevant art, in other embodiments the machine 100 can be used in other ways to purchase or top up cards or associated accounts without departing from the spirit or scope of the present disclosure.
  • [0042]
    FIG. 3 is a flow diagram illustrating a routine 300 for exchanging various forms of value with the value exchange machine 100 of FIG. 1. In block 301, the user selects one or more forms of value desired as output. For example, a user can select any combination of redeemable cash voucher, prepaid cash card, gift card, phone card, ticket, Internet service, digital content, and/or other products and services. In addition or alternatively, the user may elect to transfer funds to or from an existing account, for example, to pay off a credit card balance; to increase funds in a checking, savings, or brokerage account; to add time to a long distance account; for a person-to-person payment; or for an “e-wallet.” Similarly, the user may elect to “top up” an existing prepaid cash card or cell phone account with additional value or minutes, respectively. Further, the user may elect to donate any portion of the deposited value to a nonprofit organization.
  • [0043]
    In block 302, the machine 100 accepts one or more types of funds from the user. As explained above, funds can include any combination of coins, currency, credit card, debit card, gift card, existing prepaid cash card or phone card, etc. If a credit card is used for payment, the machine 100 validates the credit card and obtains authorization to debit the funds from the credit card account or accounts. In one embodiment, this is accomplished by communication between the machine 100 and one or more remote computers via the communications facility 113. The remote computers can access one or more financial institutions that control the authorization and debiting/crediting of credit card accounts. In block 303, the machine 100 receives authorization for the desired transaction(s) from the remote computers and dispenses the new form of value (e.g., a prepaid cash card, phone card, redeemable cash voucher, cash, event tickets, and/or associated transaction confirmation numbers) to the user. If the transaction involved topping up an existing card, then the user receives confirmation that the value associated with the card has been increased. Similarly, if the transaction involved a transfer of money to an account, then the user receives confirmation that the transfer has occurred.
  • [0044]
    FIG. 4 is a diagram illustrating the various forms of value that are exchangeable with the value exchange machine 100 in accordance with an embodiment. User-provided inputs are shown on the left side of FIG. 4 and can include coins, currency, or credit from cash cards, credit cards, debit cards, gift cards, bank account transfers, brokerage account transfers, on-line transactions, and the like. Outputs from the machine 100 are shown on the right side of FIG. 4 and can include prepaid cards (e.g., cash and credit cards), redeemable vouchers, phone cards, tickets (e.g., event tickets or travel tickets), currency (e.g., leftover change from a transaction), gift cards (e.g., gift certificates), novelty cards (e.g., baseball cards or similar items), smart cards (e.g., stored-value cards that contain a record of monetary value on the card itself), account transfers, internet service, digital content, and/or other products and services. Input to the machine 100 may include any combination of the inputs shown in FIG. 4, and output may include any combination of the outputs shown in FIG. 4. In other embodiments shown by the dotted line 402 in FIG. 4, one or more of the listed outputs may also be used as inputs. For example, in one other embodiment a user can convert a prepaid card to cash by surrendering the card to the machine or by swiping the card and instructing the machine to dispense either cash or a redeemable voucher equivalent to the value remaining on the card. In a further embodiment, a user can transfer money from a bank account to a card.
  • [0045]
    In yet other embodiments, a user can access account information with the machine 100. For example, in one aspect of this embodiment, the user can swipe a card and determine the amount of funds (or phone minutes in the case of phone cards) remaining on the card or in an associated account. In all the foregoing embodiments, the operator of the value exchange machine may elect to charge the user a fee for performing the desired transaction.
  • [0046]
    FIGS. 5-9 and the associated discussion provide a brief, general description of a suitable computing environment in which aspects of the invention can be implemented. Although not required, embodiments of the invention are described in the general context of computer-executable instructions, such as routines executed by a general purpose computer (e.g., a server or personal computer). Those of ordinary skill in the relevant art will appreciate that aspects of the invention can be practiced with other computer system configurations, including Internet appliances, hand-held devices, wearable computers, cellular or mobile phones, multi-processor systems, microprocessor-based or programmable consumer electronics, set-top boxes, network PCs, mini-computers, mainframe computers, and the like. Further, aspects of the invention can be embodied in a special-purpose computer or data processor that is specifically programmed, configured, or constructed to perform one or more of the computer-executable instructions described in detail below. Indeed, the term “computer,” as used generally herein, refers to any of the above-mentioned devices, as well as any data processor. In addition, throughout the discussion, that follows, the term “web site” or similar will be understood to include, where required by the context, the associated server computer, databases, and other known structures and functions required to implement a web site.
  • [0047]
    FIG. 5 is a block diagram illustrating components of a value exchange system 500 configured in accordance with an embodiment. In one aspect of this embodiment, one or more value exchange machines 100 are connected to a server computer 502 via a first communications link 504. The value exchange machines 100 of this embodiment can be at least generally similar to the value exchange machine 100 discussed above with reference to FIGS. 1-4. The first communications link 504 may be a radio frequency (RF) communications link (e.g., wireless communications link), a modem, a computer network (such as a local area network (LAN)) an intranet, or the Internet. In another aspect of this embodiment, the first communications link 504 can also include or be associated with a “host” computer that receives communications from the value exchange machine(s) 100 and sends corresponding communications to appropriate recipient computers to carry out various aspects of the value exchange system 500.
  • [0048]
    In a further aspect of this embodiment, the server computer 502 is connected to a financial institution computer 506. The financial institution computer 506 can be configured to facilitate the electronic transfer of funds between various financial accounts and/or institutions. For example, the financial institution computer 506, in one embodiment, can communicate with a credit card institution to facilitate the debiting and crediting of a credit card account. In other embodiments, the financial institution computer 506 can communicate with a bank, credit union, or brokerage firm to facilitate the debiting and crediting of various types of accounts typically found in such institutions. Similarly, in another embodiment, the financial institution computer 506 can communicate with a prepaid card-issuing institution to facilitate management of prepaid card accounts. In another aspect of this embodiment, the server computer 502 can be connected to one or more POS computers 510. The POS computers 510 can be located at retail outlets where users of the value exchange machine(s) 100 use their prepaid cash or credit cards to pay for goods and/or services.
  • [0049]
    In one embodiment, a user wishing to purchase, for example, a prepaid cash card, visits one of the value exchange machines 100 at, for example, a retail outlet, and selects the desired transaction. If the user wishes to purchase the prepaid card using an existing credit card, the user “swipes” the existing credit card through the card reader 202 (FIG. 2) on the machine 100. After the user has entered any necessary codes or PINs, transaction information routes via the first communications link 504 to the server computer 502. The server computer 502 can then communicate with the financial institution computer 506 to authorize the transaction on the user's credit card account. If the financial institution computer 506 validates the transaction, it sends an authorization to the machine 100 to issue the user a prepaid cash card for the desired amount. In one aspect of this embodiment, in response to receiving the authorization, a card dispenser positioned within the machine 100 receives a card from an associated card hopper, reads an identification number off the card, and dispenses the card to the user. The machine 100 sends the card number to the server computer 502, and the server computer 502 updates a database with the card number and the associated value of the card, noting that that particular card is now active for usage. In this example, the server computer 502 can receive both card purchase transaction data and card “top up” transaction data originating from the machine 100.
  • [0050]
    In another aspect of this embodiment, a card value (e.g., dollar value or minutes) associated with a card number is stored in a database, and the database is updated to reflect the reduction in value that occurs each time the card is used to purchase goods and/or services. For example, when a user, or someone the user has authorized, presents the card at a POS to purchase goods and/or services, the POS computer 510 communicates with the server computer 502 to receive authorization for the transaction. The server computer 502 determines if the card number is active and if the card contains enough value to cover the desired purchase. If the transaction is authorized and concluded, then the server computer 502 updates the database with the present value of the card. Although the server computer 502 is illustrated as a single computer in FIG. 5, in other embodiments the function of the server computer 502 can be provided by two or more computers without departing from the spirit or scope of this disclosure. For example, in one such embodiment a first computer will provide the authorization function by communicating with various financial institutions, and a second computer will maintain and update the databases containing card usage information and status.
  • [0051]
    In another embodiment of the value exchange system 500, the value of a card (e.g., a “smart card”) may be recorded (i.e., written) directly on the card itself (e.g., with a computer memory/processor on the card) and decremented each time the card is used. In this embodiment, the value exchange machine 100 can both read and write to cards and, accordingly, access to one or both of the server computer 502 and the financial institution computer 506 may not be required. For example, in one embodiment, the user selects the desired type of card (e.g., a prepaid cash card), and inputs funds (e.g., by depositing coins and/or cash). In this embodiment, after counting the funds received from the user to arrive at a value, the machine 100 can write that particular value to a new card and dispense the card to the user. In another embodiment, the user may desire to add value to an existing “smart card,” “stored-value card,” or the like. In this embodiment, after inputting his/her funds, the user can submit the existing smart card to the machine 100 to have the additional value written directly to the card (i.e., to “recharge” or “reload” the card). In either embodiment, when the card is subsequently used in commerce, a card writer at the POS can decrement the card for the amount of the particular purchase.
  • [0052]
    The value exchange system 500 can include other functionalities in addition to those discussed above. For example, in one embodiment the value exchange system 500 allows a user to access an account web site 530 from a remote general-purpose user computer 520, such as a personal computer. In one aspect of this embodiment, the account web site 530 is hosted by the card server 502 and can be accessed over a second communications link 526. The second communications link 526 can be the Internet or another computer network. In another embodiment, the second communications link 526 and the first communications link 504 can be the same communications link. For example, in this embodiment, both the first and second communications links 504 and 526 can be the Internet. The account web site 530 can allow users to remotely conduct the following transactions: register new cash cards, obtain balance inquiries, add value to existing cards, review recent transaction history, and/or purchase new cards.
  • [0053]
    In addition to the foregoing, a user can also utilize the value exchange system 500 to pick up tickets and other items reserved or purchased on-line. In this embodiment, the user first accesses a ticket seller web site 540 to reserve or purchase tickets and receive a ticket reservation number. The user can then visit a conveniently located machine 100 and enter the reservation number and/or a PIN. The machine 100 then communicates with the ticket seller web site 540 via the first communications link 504 to obtain authorization to dispense the tickets. After obtaining the authorization, the machine 100 dispenses the tickets to the user.
  • [0054]
    While selected aspects of the value exchange system 500 have been described above for purposes of illustration, those of ordinary skill in the relevant art will appreciate that various other functionalities can be combined with this system in accordance with this disclosure to further enhance the utility of the system. For example, other types of informational- or transactional-based web sites can be accessed via the value exchange machine 500 to obtain yet other forms of data and/or accomplish other forms of transaction. For example, the machine 100 can access a novelty card web site 542 to obtain authorization to dispense novelty items or cards, such as baseball cards. Further, a phone card web site 541 can also be included in the system 500 to provide the infrastructure necessary for the user to purchase or recharge prepaid phone cards from the machine 100 as described above.
  • [0055]
    FIG. 6 is a flow diagram illustrating a routine 600 implemented by the value exchange system 500 of FIG. 5 in one embodiment. In block 602, a user selects one or more desired transactions at the machine 100 (FIG. 1). In one aspect of this embodiment, the user may elect to perform multiple transactions with multiple types of input and receive multiple types of output. In block 604, the machine 100 prompts the user for the method or methods of payment. As discussed in detail above, the user may elect to pay for the transaction with coins, currency, credit card, debit card, checking or savings account transfers, or value prepaid over the Internet. In block 606, in one embodiment, the machine displays a fee associated with the selected transaction. In block 608, the user accepts or rejects the fee. If the user accepts the fee, in block 610, the user is prompted to enter his/her form of payment into the machine 100. In block 612, the machine 100 accepts the payment from the user, and in block 614, the machine 100 verifies the payment method.
  • [0056]
    In block 616, the machine 100 communicates with a host computer, e.g., the server computer 502 of FIG. 5, to initiate the transaction. The server computer 502 authorizes the transaction via the financial institution computer 506 and one or more of a bank, a credit card institution, a debit card institution, or a prepaid phone card-issuing institution, as required. In block 618, the server computer 502 returns a unique code to the machine 100 that can be utilized to verify or reconcile the transaction.
  • [0057]
    In block 620, the machine 100 outputs the results of the transaction to the user. As explained above, the output can include a cash redeemable voucher, a prepaid credit card or cash card, a prepaid phone card, and/or an event or travel ticket. In block 622, the machine 100 prints a receipt and issues it to the user for his/her records. In the event the user is “topping up” an existing credit card or phone card, or transferring money to or from an account, the user will receive a receipt documenting the money transfer. It will be apparent to those of ordinary skill in the art that any combination of the foregoing transactional outputs is possible in accordance with this disclosure.
  • [0058]
    FIGS. 7-9 are flow diagrams that together illustrate a routine for conducting a transaction with the machine 100 of FIG. 1 in accordance with an embodiment. Referring first to FIG. 7, FIG. 7 is a flow diagram illustrating a routine 700 for receiving a transaction selection from a user in one embodiment. In block 702, the user is prompted to select a transaction type or option. As illustrated in blocks 703, the user can select from numerous transaction options that include: obtaining a new prepaid card (block 704), reloading or “topping up” an existing prepaid card (block 706 a), obtaining a redeemable cash voucher (block 708), obtaining a prepaid phone card (block 710), obtaining a ticket or other item previously reserved and/or paid for over the Internet (block 712 a), adding minutes to an existing cell phone account (block 714 a), adding time to an existing long distance account (block 715 a), or transferring money to an account (block 716 a). After the user has selected the desired transaction, the machine may prompt the user for additional information. For example, if the user elects to reload a prepaid card (block 706 a), then in block 706 b the user is prompted to swipe the card through the card reader 202 (FIG. 2). In so doing, the machine 100 reads the card and verifies its validity by communicating with one or more internal or remote databases, as explained above. Similarly, if the user elects to receive a ticket previously ordered over the Internet (block 712 a), then in block 712 b the user is prompted for an associated reservation number. Once the reservation number has been entered, in block 712 c the user is prompted for a PIN. After receiving the PIN, in block 712 d the machine 100 verifies the PIN and the availability of the ticket. If instead the user elects to transfer money from, for example, a first account to a second account (block 716 a), then in block 716 b user is prompted to enter an account number for the first account from which the money will be withdrawn. In addition, in block 716 c the user may be prompted for a PIN associated with the first account. After this information has been entered, in block 716 d the machine 100 prompts the user for an account number for the second account into which the money will be deposited. In block 716 e, the user may be prompted for a PIN associated with second account. After this information has been entered, in block 716 f the machine 100 verifies the respective account numbers and, if applicable, the respective PINs. If the user will be depositing the funds for transfer to the second account instead of withdrawing them from the first account, then the user selects this option and does not enter a first account number.
  • [0059]
    In block 718, the user is prompted to select another transaction type if there is more than one transaction the user wishes to perform. If the user does wish to perform a second transaction, the routine returns to block 702 and the user is prompted to select a second type of transaction. If the user does not wish to perform a second transaction, then in block 720 the user indicates that he/she is done selecting transaction types. In block 722, the machine determines whether it needs to collect any funds from the user for the selected transaction(s). If the machine determines that the user needs to deposit funds for the transaction, then the routine 700 proceeds to routine 800 shown in FIG. 8. Otherwise, the routine 700 proceeds to routine 900 shown in FIG. 9.
  • [0060]
    FIG. 8 is a flow diagram illustrating the routine 800 for inputting various forms of payment in one embodiment. In block 802, a user is prompted for a payment method. As illustrated in blocks 803, the user can select from numerous forms of payment. For example, the user may elect to pay for the transaction with cash (e.g., dollar bills) (block 804 a), coins (e.g., a plurality of randomly oriented coins) (block 806 a), credit (block 808 a), debit (block 810 a), and/or funds from various types of payment accounts (block 812 a). If the user elects to pay with cash as in block 804 a, then in block 804 b the user is prompted to begin inserting bills into the bill acceptor 204 (FIG. 2). As the user is inserting bills, in block 804 c a running total of the bills inserted and accepted is displayed, for example, on the screen 118 of the machine 100 shown in FIG. 1. In block 804 d, the user is prompted to indicate when he/she is done inserting bills.
  • [0061]
    If the user elects to pay for the transaction with coins as in block 806 a, then in block 806 b the user is instructed to deposit the coins, for example, by placing them in the coin tray 106 of the machine 100 shown in FIG. 1 and rotating the tray 106 upwardly to deliver the coins to the coin sorting/counting apparatus 112. In block 806 c, a running total of the coins that have been deposited and counted is displayed, for example, on the screen 118. The user is then prompted in block 806 d to indicate when all of the coins have been deposited. If the user elects to pay for the transaction with credit as in block 808 a, then in block 808 b the user is instructed to swipe their credit card through the card reader 202. In block 808 c, the user may be instructed to enter a number, such as his/her zip code, to verify the account. After swiping the credit card or otherwise entering the account information, in block 808 d, the user is prompted to enter the amount that the user wishes to charge to the credit card account. Once the user has input this information, in block 808 e, the machine 100 contacts the server computer 502 (FIG. 5) to preauthorize use of the credit card for the amount requested, as explained above.
  • [0062]
    If the user elects to pay for the selected transaction with a debit card as in block 810 a, then in block 810 b the user is instructed to swipe the debit card through the card reader 202. The user is then instructed in block 810 c to enter a debit card PIN to verify user authorization. After entering the PIN, in block 810 d the user is prompted to enter the amount to debit the associated account for the selected transaction. After this information has been entered, in block 810 e the machine 100 communicates with the server computer 502 to authorize use of the account for the amount of the debit. If instead the user elects to pay for the selected transaction by transferring money from an account as shown in block 812 a, then in block 812 b the user is prompted to enter the number of the account. In block 812 c, the user may also be prompted to enter a PIN associated with the account.
  • [0063]
    In decision block 814, after the user has entered the first form of payment and any other necessary information, the user is prompted as to whether they wish to include an additional form of payment. If the user wishes to use an additional form of payment for the selected transaction, then the routine 800 returns to block 802. If the user is finished entering payment, then the routine proceeds to the routine 900 shown in FIG. 9.
  • [0064]
    FIG. 9 is a flow diagram illustrating a routine 900 for completing a selected transaction in one embodiment. In block 902, the machine 100 displays the fees associated with the selected transaction for viewing by the user. In decision block 904, the user accepts or rejects the fees. If the user rejects the fees, then in block 905 the routine returns any funds received from the user back to the user and the routine is complete. If the user accepts the fees, then in decision block 906 the routine determines if the user elected to receive a redeemable cash voucher. If so, then in block 907 the machine prints the cash voucher and dispenses it to the user. If, instead, the user elected to receive a prepaid card (e.g., for cash, credit, or phone minutes), receive a preordered ticket, transfer money, etc., then in block 908 the machine contacts a host computer (e.g., the server computer 502 of FIG. 5) to provide account information to authorize the transaction, create an account, or transfer account data. In block 910, the host computer performs the necessary transactions with, for example, a financial institution or a phone card-issuing institution, and returns the necessary authorization data to the machine 100.
  • [0065]
    Once the transaction has been authorized, the machine 100 issues the desired output to the user according to one of the blocks 911. For example, if the user selected a prepaid cash card or phone card, the machine 100 dispenses the selected type of card to the user via the card outlet 208 shown in FIG. 2. Similarly, if the user selected a ticket, the machine 100 dispenses it to the user via the ticket outlet 210 shown in FIG. 2. In decision block 912, the machine 100 verifies that it has performed all of the transactions requested by the user. If the machine 100 has not completed the requested transactions, then the routine 900 returns to block 902 and repeats. If all the requested transactions have been performed, then in block 914 the machine 100 prints a receipt with a unique transaction number and issues it to the user. In block 916, if any currency is left over from the selected transaction, the machine 100 dispenses it to the user from the coin return slot 110 shown in FIG. 1.
  • [0066]
    FIG. 10 is a flow diagram illustrating a routine 1000 for transferring money in accordance with an embodiment. In one aspect of this embodiment, the routine 1000 can be implemented with the value exchange system 500 of FIG. 5 for a person-to-person money transfer between a first user and a second user. By way of example, the first user can be operating one of the user computers 520 (such as user computer 1), and the second user can be operating another one of the user computers 520 (such as user computer η). In another aspect of this embodiment, the money transfer web site 543 (FIG. 5) can be configured to provide one or more web pages to user computers to facilitate the transfer of funds between users as described herein. As used here, the term “web site” is understood to include a server computer and/or the associated databases required to store, send, and implement the various aspects of the associated web pages.
  • [0067]
    Referring to FIG. 10, in block 1002, the first user retrieves a money transfer web page from the money transfer web site 543 for display on user computer 1. The web page is configured to receive information from the first user related to the desired money transfer. In block 1004, the first user enters information on the displayed web page including one or more of the name of the second user (i.e., the “recipient”), and contact information for the second user, such as an email address, phone number, pager number, and the like. This information can also include the amount of money the first user would like to transfer to the second user, and credit card information or other information identifying the source of the funds for the transfer. In block 1006, after the first user has entered the necessary information on the web page, the user selects a corresponding send button to automatically transfer the information to one or more remote computers to authorize the transaction. In a further aspect of this embodiment, the one or more remote computers can include the server computer 502 and the financial institution computer 506 described above with reference to FIG. 5. Upon receiving this information, the financial institution computer 506 can communicate with one or more credit or debit card issuers as required to obtain authorization to debit the first users account for the amount to be transferred to the second user. Here, “financial institution” can include virtually any institution that holds or manages money for customers. Such institutions may include, for example, brokerage firms, banks, credit unions, on-line accounts, etc.
  • [0068]
    In block 1007, the money transfer web site 543 receives authorization for the funds transfer from the financial institution computer 506. After receiving the authorization, in block 1008, the money transfer web site 543 sends a first electronic message to the first user at user computer 1. The first message notifies the first user that the money transfer has been authorized. Similarly, in block 1010, the money transfer web site 543 also sends a second electronic message to the second user at user computer η. The second message notifies the second user that the first user has transferred funds to the second user, and directs the second user to one or more of the value exchange machines 100 to retrieve the transferred funds. In addition, the second message can also include other security related information, such as a password, code, or PIN that the second user will need to enter into the value exchange machine 100 before the machine will dispense the funds.
  • [0069]
    In block 1012, the second user visits a conveniently located value exchange machine 100 and obtains the transferred funds. In yet another aspect of this embodiment, the second user can obtain the funds by selecting the appropriate transaction option as displayed, for example, on the display screen 118, and by entering the necessary code or PIN included with the second message via, for example, the first key pad 114 or the second key pad 206 (See FIGS. 1 and 2). After the second user has input the code or PIN, the value exchange machine 100 dispenses a voucher to the second user for the transferred amount. The second user may then take the voucher to a POS at a retail outlet or other commercial location (such as a bank), and exchange the voucher for cash, goods and/or services up to the amount specified on the voucher.
  • [0070]
    The method described above in accordance with the routine 1000 provides an efficient way to transfer money between two or more individuals. Aspects of this embodiment may provide additional benefits in those situations where the first and second users live in different states or different countries, or are otherwise separated by sufficient distance to make hand-delivered money transfers impractical.
  • [0071]
    In another embodiment similar to that described above with reference to FIG. 10, the value exchange system 500 of FIG. 5 can be utilized for a person-to-person money transfer between a first user operating one of the value exchange machines 100 and a second user operating one of the user computers 520. In one aspect of this embodiment, the first user visits one of the machines 100 and selects an option for a person-to-person money transfer. After selecting the option, the machine 100 displays a number of instructions or prompts for the first user for receiving information from the first user related to the desired money transfer. In response to the prompts, the first user can enter information about the money transfer. Such information can include, for example, one or more of the name of the second user (i.e., the “recipient”); contact information for the second user, such as an email address; the amount of money the first user would like to transfer to the second user; and credit card or other information identifying the source of the funds for the money transfer. After the first user has entered the necessary information into the machine 100, the machine 100 sends (via, e.g., the communications facility 113 of FIG. 1) the funds source information to, e.g., the server computer 502 and the financial institution computer 506 to authorize the transaction as described above with reference to FIG. 10. In addition, the machine 100 can also send at least a portion of the transaction information to the money transfer web site 543.
  • [0072]
    Upon authorization, the financial institution computer 506 sends an electronic message to the money transfer web site 543 authorizing the funds transfer. In response to the message, the money transfer web site 543 sends a first electronic message back to the machine 100 for display to the first user. The first message notifies the first user that the money transfer has been authorized. The money transfer web site 543 can also send a second electronic message, e.g., an email message, to the second user at the user computer 520. The second message notifies the second user that the first user has transferred funds to the second user, and directs the second user to one or more of the value exchange machines 100 to retrieve the transferred funds. In addition, the second message can also include other security related information, such as a password, code, or PIN that the second user will need to enter into the machine 100 before the machine will dispense the funds. The second user can then visit a conveniently located machine 100 and obtain the transferred funds as described above with reference to FIG. 10.
  • [0073]
    The foregoing method provides an efficient way to transfer money between two or more individuals when the transferor may not have access to a user computer for accessing the money transfer web site 543. In such a situation, the transferor can instead visit one of the value exchange machines 100 to conveniently execute the money transfer.
  • [0074]
    FIG. 11 is a diagram illustrating a display page 1100 useable for a person-to-person money transfer in accordance with an embodiment. In one aspect of this embodiment, the display page 1100 can be provided by the money transfer web site 543 (FIG. 5) in response to a request from a user desiring to make a money transfer as described above with reference to FIG. 10. The display page 1100 can include a number of different data entry fields configured to receive information from the user about the money transfer. Such fields can include a dollar amount field 1102, a plurality of funds source fields 1104, a recipient name field 1106, and a plurality of electronic address fields 1108. In the illustrated embodiment, the dollar amount field 1102 can be configured to receive the dollar amount the user would like to transfer to the recipient. The funds source fields 1104 can be configured to receive account information identifying the one or more sources from which the funds will be taken. For example, the funds source fields 1104 can include one or more credit card fields, a debit card field, and an “other” field for other sources such as a checking or savings account. Accordingly, the user can check the box adjacent to the desired source of funds, and then enter the particular information needed to identify the account. Such information can include, for example, an account number and a unique password, code or PIN.
  • [0075]
    In another aspect of this embodiment, the electronic address fields 1108 can include a plurality of fields for receiving various types of electronic addresses for communicating—digitally, by voice, or otherwise—with the recipient. For example, in one aspect of this embodiment, the fields can include an email address field for sending the recipient an email message. In another aspect, the fields can include a telephone number field for sending a voice message to the recipient, or for sending a digital message to the recipient's cell phone display. In yet another aspect, the fields can include a pager number field for sending the recipient a page instructing them to call a number or go on-line to receive their message.
  • [0076]
    After entering sufficient information onto the display page 1100, the user can select a confirm button 1110 to send the information to, for example, the money transfer web site 543 (FIG. 5). From the money transfer web site 543, the funding portion of the information can be further communicated to the server computer 502 for authorization via the financial institution computer 506, as described above with reference to FIG. 10. After receiving authorization for the funds transfer, the money transfer web site 543 sends an email to the recipient's email address notifying the recipient of the money transfer.
  • [0077]
    It will be appreciated from the foregoing that although specific embodiments of the value exchange system 500 (FIG. 5) and the value exchange machine 100 (FIG. 1) are described for purposes of illustration, other embodiments can be implemented without departing from the spirit or scope of this disclosure. For example, in one other embodiment, in addition to providing various services to users via the value exchange machine 100, the system can also provide various functionalities to a remote user operating a general-purpose computer, such as the user computer 520 (FIG. 5). In this alternate embodiment, the user can access various on-line web sites to purchase or reserve various products. For example, a user may visit the ticket seller web site 540 to purchase tickets for an event and pay for the tickets with a credit card. In this embodiment, the ticket seller web site 540 then makes the purchase information available to the machine 100 so the user may then visit the machine 100 to receive the actual tickets. In another embodiment, the user can order the tickets on-line at the ticket seller web site 540 and pay for the tickets by depositing funds into the machine 100 at the time of receipt.
  • [0078]
    In a further embodiment, a user can access a telephone carrier web site 541 from the user computer 520 (FIG. 5), and pre-purchase a long distance calling card or a wireless phone card on-line. The user can pay for the card on-line (with, e.g., a credit card account) and then receive a unique code or PIN once payment is authorized. In one aspect of this embodiment, the user may then visit the machine 100 and enter his/her code to receive the card. In a similar embodiment, the user can reserve the card on-line, but not pay for the card until visiting the machine 100.
  • [0079]
    In yet another embodiment, long distance minutes may be stored on a particular long distance calling card, much like a “stored value card.” In this embodiment, a user can access the telephone carrier web site 541 and pre-purchase additional minutes to put on the card. The user can pay for the additional minutes on line (with, e.g., a credit card account) and then receive a unique code or PIN once payment is confirmed. In one aspect of this embodiment, the user may then visit the machine 100 and enter his/her long distance account number (by, e.g., swiping his/her card) and/or the PIN. The carrier web site 541 can then communicate with the machine 100 and send the corresponding “top up” data to the machine 100. The machine 100 can then add the additional prepaid phone minutes to the user's phone card. In yet another embodiment, communication between the various web sites and the value exchange machines is facilitated by a “host” computer that first receives a communication from the web site and then sends the communication to the respective value exchange machine. These and other changes may be made to the invention in light of the above detailed description.
  • [0080]
    In still further embodiments, the methods and systems described herein can be used to obtain various types of information. Such information can include, for example, account balance information (e.g., for credit card accounts, checking and savings accounts, cell phone minutes, brokerage accounts, on-line accounts, and the like). Such information can also include salary or other employment information. For example, if a particular employer distributes employee pay in the form of prepaid cash cards, then the employees can utilize the machines 100 to obtain account balance information. Additionally, the employees could utilize the machine 100 in one or more ways as described above to transfer portions of their wages to other accounts for, e.g., bill payment or a person-to-person money transfer. In yet another embodiment, the employees could use the machine 100 to convert a portion of their cash card to a redeemable cash voucher that can be redeemed for cash or used to purchase goods and/or services at a POS.
  • [0081]
    Returning to FIG. 5, in another embodiment, users can purchase computer network service and/or digital content with aspects of the value exchange system 500. “Computer network service” in this regard can include Internet service and the like. “Digital content” in this regard can include cell phone content such as ring tones, voice-mail greetings, jokes, picture messages and the like that users can purchase for use with cell phones. Such digital content can further include games (e.g., action, sports, and puzzle games) and the like that users can purchase and down-load for use on personal computers. In these embodiments, the value exchange system 500 can include an Internet Service Provider (ISP) 544 and a digital content provider 545 operatively connected to one or more of the value exchange machines 100 to facilitate the purchasing of such content and the managing of related purchase accounts.
  • [0082]
    To purchase Internet service using the system 500 of FIG. 5, a user makes an appropriate selection from a list of options displayed on one of the value exchange machines 100. In one embodiment, this list of options may include Internet service, digital content, and/or prepaid phone minutes. These options may be advertised on the display screen 118 of the value exchange machine 100 illustrated in FIG. 1. The user may select the Internet service option by using the touch screen 117 of FIG. 1. After the user has selected the desired product (e.g., Internet service), the machine 100 can prompt the user to select an amount of Internet service time the user wishes to purchase. For example, the user may have the option of selecting 20 hours of Internet service, 36 hours of Internet service, etc. After selecting the block of time desired, the machine 100 can prompt the user to input funds. In one embodiment, the user can input the funds in the form of loose coins in the coin tray 106 (FIG. 1), or the user can input paper currency via the bill acceptor 204 (FIG. 2), or a credit/debit card via the card reader 202. After confirming the receipt of funds, the machine can dispense a card to the user for the service. In one aspect of this embodiment, the card can include a unique code and a telephone number. The user can activate their block of Internet service time by calling the telephone number and entering the code.
  • [0083]
    In another embodiment similar to that described above, instead of dispensing a card to the user, the machine 100 can simply dispense a receipt to the user with a code and a phone number. The code and the phone number can be used as described above to activate the account. In yet another embodiment, the machine 100 can dispense a unique code (e.g., a password) to the user (via a card, receipt, etc.) and an address of an ISP web site. The user can then go to the web site via the Internet and enter the unique code to activate the Internet service account.
  • [0084]
    Users can purchase digital content with the system 500 of FIG. 5 in a manner similar to that described above for purchasing Internet service. For example, in one embodiment, a user selects a digital content option from a list of options displayed on one of the value exchange machines 100. As mentioned above, such digital content can include games that can be down-loaded on a personal computer, and/or cell phone content like ring tones, etc. In one embodiment, such digital content may be purchased using an on-line subscription account. For example, after the user has selected a particular type of digital content for purchase (e.g., games), the machine 100 can prompt the user to input funds. In one embodiment, the user can input the funds in the form of loose coins, for example, in the coin tray 106 (FIG. 1), or the user can input paper currency via the bill acceptor 204 (FIG. 2) or credit/debit via the card reader 202. After confirming the receipt of funds, the machine can dispense a card to the user for the digital content. In one aspect of this embodiment, the card can include a unique code and a telephone number. The user can activate the on-line subscription account by calling the telephone number and entering the code from the card. For telephone content, the user may also be asked to identify a particular phone number associated with the content. After the account has been activated, the user can then purchase and download desired content from the Internet. As the user purchases content, the amount of funds in the account is decremented. If the user desires, they can revisit a machine 100 to top-up the amount of funds in the subscription account using the method described above.
  • [0085]
    Methods and systems for providing Internet service in accordance with the present disclosure are not limited to the particular embodiment described above. In another embodiment, for example, the user can approach the machine 100 and enter a random amount of funds via, for example, the coin input tray 106 (FIG. 1), the bill acceptor 204, or the card reader 202 (FIG. 2). In this embodiment, after the user selects the desired product (e.g., Internet service), the machine 100 can prompt the user for information identifying an existing Internet service account. In one embodiment, the user can then key in an account number for an existing Internet service account that the user wants to “top-up” with additional service time. In anther embodiment, the user can swipe a card identifying an existing Internet service account for top up. After the user has identified the existing account, the received funds can be applied to the existing account to increase the service time available in the account, and the machine 100 can dispense a receipt to the user as a record of the transaction.
  • [0086]
    FIG. 12 is a flow diagram illustrating a routine 1200 for purchasing Internet service, digital content, and the like in one embodiment. In block 1202, a user can select a product from a list displayed on a kiosk such as the machine 100 (FIGS. 1 and 5). The available products can include, for example, Internet service, digital content, and/or cell phone content. After selecting the desired product, the user is prompted to enter funds. In one embodiment, the user is given a choice of preset dollar amounts of the selected products to purchase. In other embodiments, the user can select an arbitrary amount of the service or product to be purchased. In block 1204, the user enters funds into the kiosk. In one embodiment, the user enters funds by entering a plurality of coins in the coin input tray 106 (FIG. 1) and delivering the coins to the coin sorting/counting apparatus 112. In another embodiment, the user can enter funds by swiping his or her credit card through the card reader 202 (FIG. 2). In yet another embodiment, the user can enter funds for the particular product or service by entering paper currency into the bill acceptor 204 (FIG. 2). In other embodiments, the user can enter funds in other ways.
  • [0087]
    In block 1206, the kiosk dispenses a code to the user. In one embodiment, the code can be included on a card dispensed to the user. In another embodiment, the code can be included on a receipt. In yet another embodiment, the code can be displayed on a display screen of the kiosk. The code can be associated with a unique account for the particular service or product purchased. For example, in one embodiment, a card is dispensed to the user from the kiosk. The card can include a code or a PIN. In block 1208, the user can call a telephone number, such as a toll-free telephone number on the card, to activate the particular product or service purchased. For example, if the user desires to purchase Internet service time, then the user can receive a card that includes a unique code and a telephone number. The user calls the telephone number and provides the code to activate the Internet service time. In another embodiment, the user can purchase time to add to an existing Internet service account. In this embodiment, the additional time purchased at the kiosk is posted to the users Internet account such that when the user connects to his or her service provider, the extra time will be available for use by the user.
  • [0088]
    FIG. 13 is a flow diagram of a routine 1300 for purchasing a selected service or product, such as Internet service, or digital content, in accordance with another embodiment of the invention. In block 1302, the user selects a desired product at a kiosk. In one embodiment, the user can select the desired product by using a touch screen that displays the available products. After selecting the desired product, in block 1304 the user can identify an existing account that the user desires to top-up. For example, if the user has an existing Internet service account, the user can input the service provider and a unique code identifying the account. Alternatively, the user can swipe a magnetic striped card having the account information on the card. The kiosk can then read the account-identifying information off of the card to identify the account. Similarly, if the user desires to top-up a digital content subscription account, the user could either swipe a card through the card reader or enter the account number via a digital key pad included on the kiosk. In other embodiments, the user can identify an existing account using one or more other methods.
  • [0089]
    Once the user has selected the desired product and identified the account that the user wishes to top-up, in block 1306 the user enters payment for the additional time or subscription amounts that the user would like the add to their account. After entering the funds, the user can receive a receipt as a record of the additional value they have added to their existing account.
  • [0090]
    The foregoing description included above with reference to FIGS. 12 and 13 describe two methods for purchasing or topping-up Internet service accounts or digital content subscription accounts in accordance with the invention. Pre-paid subscription accounts that allow consumers to make purchases on the Internet can include accounts that allow users to purchase online content for a mobile phone. For example, in one embodiment, the user can purchase a prepaid subscription account that allows the user to go online and purchase ring tones for use in a cell phone. Accordingly, the user goes to a website on the Internet, and identifies their cell phone number and the particular ring tone they would like to use. When a person calls that cell phone number, the phone will ring with the selected tone. In another embodiment, the user can receive an account that allows them to purchase jokes or voice-mail greetings online for their cell phones. And yet another embodiment, the user is able to purchase an account that allows the user to purchase or download games and puzzles online. Such games can include sports games and the like. In all of the foregoing embodiments, the accounts can be purchased at a kiosk by purchasing a card that includes a unique PIN.
  • [0091]
    The above detailed descriptions of embodiments of the invention are not intended to be exhaustive or to limit the invention to the precise form disclosed above. While specific embodiments of, and examples for, the invention are described above for illustrative purposes, various equivalent modifications are possible within the scope of the invention, as those skilled in the relevant art will recognize. For example, while steps are presented in a given order, alternative embodiments may perform routines having steps in a different order. The teachings of the invention provided herein can be applied to other systems, not necessarily the value exchange system described herein. These and other changes can be made to the invention in light of the above detailed description.
  • [0092]
    From the foregoing, it will be appreciated that specific embodiments of the invention have been described herein for purposes of illustration, but that various modifications may be made without deviating from the spirit and scope of the invention. Accordingly, the invention is not limited, except as by the appended claims.
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Classifications
U.S. Classification194/217
International ClassificationG06Q20/00, G06F, G07F17/16, G06Q30/00, H04M17/00, G07F17/42, G06F19/00, G07F9/08, G06F9/00, G06F7/00
Cooperative ClassificationH04M15/83, H04M17/00, H04M17/10, G07F17/0014, H04M17/20, G06Q30/04, G07F17/16, H04M2215/22, H04M2215/8129, H04M2215/81, G07F17/42, G06Q20/18, G06Q20/381, G06Q20/123, H04M15/84
European ClassificationG06Q20/18, G06Q30/04, G07F17/42, G07F17/00C, H04M15/84, H04M15/83, H04M17/00, G06Q20/381, G06Q20/123, H04M17/10, H04M17/20, G07F17/16
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